I heard a wonderful segment about anger on Public Radio International’s To The Best of My Knowledge Our Knowledge March 26, 2017 show which is worth a full listen. The show features a brilliant discussion with the author of a new book The Age of Anger: A History of the Present which traces the shared feelings of powerlessness experienced by both nationalist movements and fundamentalism terrorists to a disagreement between Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. The show also explores how anger can be a channel for good and how we may have become addicted to anger. If you have the time, check out the recording.
The part of the show which got my attention was focused on our personal anger, how to look at, and what to do with it. Many of us are feeling angry these days. Whether it is an unjust layoff, personal relationships gone wrong, or current political events, we are surrounded by reasons to be angry. But what is anger and how do we manage it.
The first guest on the show, Northeastern University Distinguished Professor and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, talked about what anger is, why we can’t trust our anger, and how to make anger work for us.
At the core, our emotions are based on the mind predicting a sequence of events based on what we experienced before. When our friend is late for dinner we are angry, not because they are late, but because last time they were late our friend had forgotten to tell us which made us feel unimportant. The mind is reacting to its assumptions about the meaning of the event not the reality. When you are triggered by an emotion of anger, look at the reality of the situation. Are you reacting to what is there or what you assume is going on based on previous experience?
Ms. Barrett also expressed that anger is both a form of ignorance and a source of wisdom. Anger results from our ignorance of others. We see the result of how people react, but we don’t know their why. How often have you become upset with a speeding driver? You focus on how much the driver is a jerk and how they are threatening others. But did you ever stop to wonder why they are driving recklessly? Perhaps they have someone injured in the car and are going to the hospital, or a sick child delayed them at home and they are late for work, or it could be they just like speed. Anger is our emotional reaction to our ignorance about others and their motivation.
Anger is a source of wisdom. Anger is a catalyst to uncovering truth. When we are angry, we don’t see the whole truth of the situation. Anger encourages us to take a moment, explore and uncover others’ perspectives and needs, and to truly understand the circumstances. Without taking this moment to analyze what is really going on, we can unconsciously enter us-versus-them thinking; good drivers versus bad drivers in the instance of the speeding driver. We pass judgement on them and feel righteous indignation about their actions. But this indignation only separates. Anger is actually calling us to understand and come together.
Anger can also be helpful in reminding us about things of which we feel deeply about. If you are triggered by anger, look to your why. Why is this thing, this event, this issue important to you? As I have mentioned in past posts, I am currently focused on deep self-care and self-love. When my anger arises now, it usually points to the fact that I am not nurturing myself. Next time you are angry, besides understanding the other, take some time to understand what your anger is highlighting. What challenge are you not addressing? What actions do you need to take to make things right?
Next time you feel anger stop feeding it and stop playing the victim. Instead take a few moments to understand the others’ motivation and perspective, and to understand why this issue is important to you. Anger is a tool of insight which can help us come together with understanding.